BY BOB DUFF
Hockey coaches love to talk about structure. They’ll tell you how it’s a vital element to success, and that when things go south for a team, generally it’s because they allowed the structure in their system to falter.
Structure is also the main area of appeal that hockey academies are offering to parents of prospective hockey talents. And for a growing number of families, it’s proving to be the best option.
“I think it’s because the sport pieces and the school pieces are totally aligned and ingrained,” said Jay Tredway, athletic director at Ridley College in St. Catharines. “Parents like that. They like the right priorities to be in the right order.”
For kids playing AAA hockey and later on, junior hockey, they’ll be required to fit schoolwork and classroom time around hockey in what can often be a tenuous balance. In the hockey academy environment, school comes first and hockey is fit around the educational schedule.
For these student-athletes, the student part always takes priority.
“The structure is pretty substantial in terms of supporting the kids’ growth and development both academically and outside the classroom,” Tredway said.
Some of the educational benefits of the academy include smaller class sizes. Often, the teacher to student ratio is as small as 15:1. The teachers are all board certified and in many cases, they are also ex-athletes who are in tune to the needs and concerns of both the student and the athlete.
With an emphasis on preparing students for post-secondary educational opportunities, counselling and guidance is available. There are also tutoring opportunities, SAT preparation classes and college scholarship services available.
While the academy experience might seem like it’s a relatively new entity in terms of being a developmental path for elite hockey players, the fact of the matter is that Ontario schools such as Ridley, Toronto’s Upper Canada College and St. Michael’s College and St. Andrew’s College in Aurora all have been supplying this option for more than a century.
“In some cases, it’s because the people who have been looking for them in the past have found them but if you’re not looking for them, you wouldn’t have found them,” Tredway said. “That’s just kind of the way that the independent system has worked for a long time.
“I think on the hockey side where it is becoming interesting is that academies are evolving and people are really appreciating the concept. But the reality is six or eight schools in the province of Ontario have been doing it this way for a long time.
“In some ways, the (newer hockey) academies are attempting to replicate portions of what the independent school system has had in place.”
Schools like Ridley offer classes from kindergarten through to the end of high school, providing stability to go alongside the structure.
“Ridley is an international baccalaureate continuum school,” Tredway explained. “The IB program is part of the program from kindergarten all the way through Grade 12.”
The IB continuum is designed to challenge students to excel in their studies and in their personal growth and to take the approach of lifelong learning. It encourages students to be critical thinkers and risk takers and emphasizes the value of personal qualities such as empathy and ethics.
“Ridley, just given its history and its setup, we’re not really doing anything different than we’ve always done in terms of integrating the academics and the extracurricular activities for the kids,” Tredway said.
On the ice, the academy/prep school experience also provides the development necessary for a late bloomer to blossom into a prospect. St. Andrew’s sent Robert Thomas (St. Louis Blues) and Warren Foegele (Carolina Hurricanes) to the NHL.
“These guys aren’t blue chip prospects when they come to us,” St. Andrew’s coach David Manning told Sportsnet.
The chance to play the long game and be on the rink every day, honing their skills and improving as a player is paying dividends for many kids who might not have otherwise made it. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the NHL. It can also be the opportunity to get an education paid for via a college scholarship.
“It’s first and foremost a development program,” former NHLer Garry Unger, head coach at Alberta’s Banff Academy, said of the hockey academy experience.. “We’ve got goalie coaches, power skating coaches. We have NHL guys who come and run a few practices here and there.
“In some sense, it gives some players probably the additional opportunity to play at a level that the academies play at, because they’d never make it at that level otherwise. They get that to be that level of competitor by being in the league and playing against that competition.”
Just as parents are coming to recognize that there’s value in the option for their hockey-playing children, hockey people are also seeing how the path is also developmentally beneficial for a young player.
“Ten to 15 years ago, (if you said) he’s going to play at a prep school … you kind of roll your eyes and wonder why?” suggested former NHL scout Mark Seidel, today the head of the North American Central Scouting Independent Bureau, told Sportsnet.
“Well, now if somebody says they’re going to play for St. Andrew’s, teams are like ‘Hey, that’s good. I’ve got no problem with that.’”